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Are new passport rules making the US safer?

Security experts urge a fuller vetting of passport seekers, even as big backlog persists.

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A new rule aimed at protecting US borders is behind the backlog of passport applications that has frustrated countless Americans this summer.

But some experts and federal employees who check applications warn that these shortcomings mean more work needs to be done to improve this aspect of national security.

Increasing the number of Americans who hold passports will enhance border security, they agree. But limitations in the approval process, they add, make it difficult to be sure that those who shouldn't get a passport don't. Some argue that adjudicators aren't given enough time to thoroughly check applications; others say the databases used to verify an applicant's identity and eligibility are incomplete.

"In theory, it will be more difficult for [terrorists or criminals] to come into the US on false pretenses," says David Heyman, director of the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. However, people who should not be able to get passports may continue to slip through the cracks in the absence of improved information-sharing, he says.

Under the first phase of the new rule, called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), nearly all US travelers who return by air from Mexico, Canada, and the Caribbean must show a passport.

Prior to the new requirement, officials who process travelers coming from these locations were asked to evaluate nearly 8,000 different documents that Americans used as forms of identification when crossing the border.

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